It was an unusual start to the school year as classes began Wednesday in New York. They won't resume until next Monday, with students and teachers taking the rest of the week off for the Jewish New Year.
"I think it's exciting, we get to meet the kids and then we get a break to get into it," said math coach Angela Ventura as she stood outside watching children trickle into the building escorted by parents.
Some parents complained about the odd schedule and said they could have waited until Monday. But others said it was no big deal. "It's fine, it's ok. She's in kindergarten so she's only here for three hours," said Yacselin Lopez who was dropping off her five-year old daughter.
But one third grader said he didn't think he'd get much done today. "I like school, but I like vacation," said eight year old Dylan Canales, when asked if he would have preferred to wait until Monday.
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein greeted students arriving for breakfast at P.S. 172 in Sunset Park at around 7:30 Wednesday. Chancellor Klein said he chose to make P.S. 172 the first stop on his annual five-borough tour for the first day of school because he wanted to "shine the spotlight on great work."
Ninety-five percent or more of the school's students were proficient on this year's state exams, even though scores fell throughout the city when the state made it harder to pass the tests. About 80 percent of the students at P.S. 172 get free or reduced lunch, and a third of the mostly Hispanic pupils are English Language Learners.
But Principal Spatola acknowledged the challenges ahead with four percent budget cuts on average this year. Spatola said he had to let go of two teachers and that class sizes would go up on average from 24 to 25 students, and more in some grades.
Math coach Ventura said there would be 26 students in the third grade classes, which had been about 20 students for years. But after years of additional money for city schools before the cuts of the past two years, Spatola said "we're still further ahead than ever before." And he pledged to continue the school's heavy focus on individualized instruction.
The budget isn't the only challenge this year. The city schools got a wake-up call when test scores fell dramatically on this year's state exams, because the state required students to get more questions right. New York is among many states moving toward tougher national standards. But in questions with reporters, Mayor Bloomberg adamantly defended the city's progress in education under his watch. He said graduation rates are up, adding they could still be higher, but "that's a challenge, not any reason to feel ashamed."
He said his main concern is "to stay the course." He added a dig at the media, saying "it's always easy to take shots and criticize." He noted that the city's schools have won praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The mayor was joined by a handful of Brooklyn politicians and Ernest Logan, president of the principals' union. He was not joined by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who instead visited one of the 19 low-performing schools the city wanted to begin phasing out this fall before it was blocked by a lawsuit brought by the teachers union.
"We can't do everything together," Bloomberg said, when asked about Mulgrew's absence. Bloomberg also defended the city's attempt to close the 19 schools, which he said adding the only reason to keep them open would be "I guess if you wanted to hurt kids."
The city opened just under 1,700 schools today, including 126 charters. A total of 57 new schools opened today.